An other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War-era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment.
During interviews to promote “The Shape of Water,” director Guillermo del Toro has stated that “Creature from the Black Lagoon” is his all-time favorite movie. He said that when he first saw it as a child, it touched him in a way that he had never experienced before but he also mentioned that he was disappointed by the film’s finale. In his young mind, he expected the creature and the movie’s heroine, Kay (Julie Adams), to fall in love and live happily ever after but sadly, that did not transpire so now we have “The Shape of Water,” del Toro’s homage to his favorite film and his finest and most personal movie to date.
Set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, we are introduced to Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a woman who has been mute her entire life. She lives a simple but lonely existence and every day, before and after work, she checks in with her equally lonely neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a struggling artist. Elisa works at the Occam Aerospace Research Center as a janitor along with her co-worker and best friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Day after day, we follow Elisa’s mundane routine as she wakes up, gets ready for work, goes to work, and then comes home. Very uninspiring, to say the least. One day, both her and Zelda are cleaning out a large restricted hangar when a new “asset” is brought in. Confined to a large water-filled container, both women are curious but are quickly shooed away by the team leader, the cruel and inhumane Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). They discover that whatever is in the tank, was captured by Strickland in the rivers of South America and is going to be harvested for its biology to help further scientific research.
Curiosity gets the better of Elisa and during the day when the asset is unmanned, she sneaks in to find out exactly what is being housed. A large water tank sits in the hangar and she soon discovers that it is an amphibious humanoid creature, at once very humanlike in its physical appearance but at the same time, its amphibian characteristics are distinctly observable, gills, claws, and webbing. Over time, Elisa and the creature form a bond but when she overhears Strickland telling a scientist, Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), that he wants the creature terminated so that the U.S. Military can study it, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Along with her neighbor Giles, they concoct a plan with the intention of sneaking into the facility and taking the creature with them so that eventually they can release it back into the ocean. When their plan hits a snag, however, Hoffstetler surprises Elisa by becoming an ally and tells her how to look after the creature until it is returned to the ocean.
With her bathtub filled with salt water and chemicals provided by Hoffstetler, the creature is able to live there temporarily. Elisa plans on releasing him in the coming days when the rainwaters flood a nearby canal but in the meantime, she and the creature become close and develop a romantic and physical relationship. As Strickland struggles to discover the identity of the people who took the creature, believing them to be trained military soldiers, with his job and his life at stake, he soon realizes that it was, in fact, Elisa who took the creature. As he makes his way to her apartment, ready to kill anyone who stands in his way, the creature begins to show signs of deterioration and Elisa must make a decision, release him now or risk losing him to Strickland.
I deliberately went into “The Shape of Water” without having watched the trailer, being Guillermo del Toro, a director I have long admired, I decided I wanted to be surprised and believe you me, I most certainly was. Del Toro’s last two films, “Pacific Rim” and “Crimson Peak,” failed to excite audiences and critics alike, myself included, so I had a certain amount of trepidation going in but those fears were quickly put to rest as soon as the movie started. When you think of a love story between an amphibian creature and a human woman, the mind could easily boggle but del Toro captures perfectly the essence of what true love is all about. Their love for each other transcends all boundaries, physical and emotional, and strips them away until all you have left are two souls who appreciate and care for one another, in spite of everything else. The performances throughout are excellent but Sally Hawkins, as the voiceless yet sympathetic Elisa, is outstanding. Her soulful facial expressions and charitable intentions achieve more than any spoken word could ever accomplish.
The story takes place in Baltimore in the early ’60s when racism and sexual discrimination was in full swing and del Toro makes several nods to it. One scene, in particular, transpires in a restaurant where Giles inadvertently comes on to a young waiter, misinterpreting his friendliness as a sign of interest. The man, having just ejected a young black couple from the empty diner simply because of their skin color, proceeds to ask Giles to leave and not return as it is a “family establishment.” Giles grabs a napkin and proceeds to scrape the remnants of his pie off his tongue and spits the remains onto his plate before leaving. At its heart, the movie speaks volumes about discrimination and nowhere is this more prominent than in the central narrative. After all, if a mute woman can reach out and touch the heart of a cold-blooded amphibian, and receive the same in return, then what’s the problem? “The Shape of Water” is, by far, del Toro’s most ambitious project to date and maybe with its success, one of the big Hollywood studios will realize just how capable the director truly is, and give him what he needs so he can finally make his long-sought-after adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness.”
In theaters Friday, December 8th